Here is this week’s excerpt, from chapter two of Reimagining Apologetics, a chapter entitled, “Feeling the Way In.” In this (slightly modified) excerpt I reflect on the words of a favorite hymn to illustrate three approaches to apologetics.
When I was growing up, there was a hymn that my church used to sing on Easter Sunday: “I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today. I know that he is living, whatever men may say.” The hymn notes the hand, voice, and presence of Jesus throughout the world, before building to its triumphant chorus: “He lives, he lives; Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me, along life’s narrow way. He lives, he lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart!”
Notice: for assurance of the resurrection, the hymn does not direct doubters to an external source, such as the testimony of eyewitnesses in Scripture or the authority of church tradition. Rather, the most significant reason for faith is profoundly existential and experiential: he walks with me and talks with me. Confidence that Christ is really risen is confirmed through my individual emotive experience as I turn to look within. You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.
Apologetic communication has always had experiential dimensions. But it is only with the rise of authenticity that the experiential dimension is given pride of place. The underlying theme is that the only way you can really know Christianity’s substance is to experience it yourself.
But this raises a significant challenge for the apologetic task. If Christian faith can only be adequately known from the inside, how can it be communicated to those on the outside? How can such deeply felt personal insight be commended, much less be convincing to those who contest the resurrection claim?
One option is to suspend the subjective, experiential dimension in an effort to establish the appeal on external evidences and rational proofs. Let us call this truth-oriented apologetics. To borrow a well-worn distinction from William Lane Craig, Christians may know the reality of the resurrection experientially (through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit), but that is not the way that we show that reality to others. Such an approach seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity before appealing to its goodness or beauty. It builds on the facts rather than felt sense. “He lives within my heart” is fine as a word of personal testimony, directed towards the believing community. But as concerns Christian witness, “He lives within my heart” only has existential relevance after it has been demonstrated that the physical resurrection actually occurred.
This approach has been so popular among evangelicals that for many “demonstrating Christianity’s truth” is what the word apologetics means. But if our argument about authenticity in chapter one is persuasive, then we should expect such approaches to have uneven effectiveness. In the age of authenticity, truth must resonate with my emotional, embodied experience of the world. It must “speak to me” in languages of feeling that I can understand. That is to say, it must engage the imagination, not just the intellect. But how does one communicate internal resonance while also staying tethered to external reality?
A second approach, responsive to the perceived impotence of the first method, is to suspend evidential argumentation altogether and to insist that the church’s communal witness and proclamation of the gospel is the best apologetic. Let us call this church-oriented apologetics. Here the modest claims of testimony replace the empirical claims of proof and the reality of the resurrection becomes intelligible in the concrete, lived out reality of the church’s corporate life. So, we might adjust the words of the hymn to something like, “He lives in the embodied practices of our community.”
This may not pack a punch like the original version, but that is not a major concern. For although outsiders are invited to “taste and see” the coherence of Christianity, there is less of a concern to establish common ground between rival visions of the world. This approach seeks to commend the Christian faith as an imaginative whole. Apologetics is embodied in a revitalized and robust church whose distinctiveness is its most attractive element. Insofar as it takes the imagination more seriously, this approach to apologetics has wider purchase in the age of authenticity. But at its best it requires a high level of imaginative empathy from outsiders. At worst it ignores them.
This leads us to a third route, one that seeks to alert outsiders to the way that their embodied, emotional experience of the world may already bear the marks of divine presence and address. I will call this the apologetics of authenticity: an apologetic that begins by exploring our intuitive and imaginative sense of our place in the world, locating the appeal of faith in the aesthetic dimension.
Adopting the apologetics of authenticity does not necessarily mean we must leave the first two approaches behind. I want to encourage all sorts of ways of working together to bear witness to the good news of Jesus. And so, I will seek to honor the best impulses and sharpest criticisms of both the truth-oriented and church-oriented approaches in order to create a robust, reimagined apologetic.
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 43-58.
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